Monster Crocodiles, Part 1: The Death Aquatic

American Crocodiles (Tomas Castelazo/Creative Commons)

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

Within the horror movie subgenre of animal attacks, two creatures rest on top of all others.

The ever vilified shark has been the star of countless terrible flicks, most of them involving stupid teenagers, mutilated limbs and unexplainable grudges and growls on the part of the sharks. Most of these movies have lousy special effects and present sharks as either mindless killing machines or super intelligent serial killers that can only be stopped with some sort of explosive trap. There's no question that when it comes to "real life monsters", sharks are at the top of the list for filmmakers. The great white shark remains Hollywood's favorite, of course, but some have tried to be original and use the tiger, bull or mako sharks as alternative monsters. Some have even gone as far as to present harmless shark species- such as the deep-sea goblin shark- as man-eaters.

Some movies intentionally modify their sharks to make them scarier. In Deep Blue Sea, for example, scientists use genetic engineering to produce giant mako sharks with human-like intelligence. This is something many animal attack movies do in order to explain the unusual, murderous behavior of their stars. But a vast majority of shark movies don´t even bother with this. Real life sharks are frightening enough.

There's no question that sharks can be dangerous under the right circumstances. Some of them are very frightening-looking. And there's of course the fact that they live in the depths of the sea. While swimming, surfing or helplessly floating on the surface after shipwrecking, we are completely at their mercy, and we can never know for sure where the shark is, and when it will attack. That's why the shark is such an effective horror movie monster.

Ironically, the second place in the list of "real life monsters" would likely be occupied by a creature that probably kills more people every year, than have sharks in all of recorded history.

This creature is the crocodile.


I've been both a crocodile keeper and a filmmaking student, so I am probably well qualified to say this; the crocodile is a superb "real life monster". Sure, when you see them at the zoo they seem sluggish, sometimes even lifeless as they bask in the sun completely motionless. During my times at the zoo I was asked often if the crocodiles in the exhibit were real of it they were "stuffed", or even if they were statues.

Some people even threw small stones or other objects to the reptiles to find out by themselves. This enraged me every time, but the crocodiles didn´t seem to care, deeply immersed in their cold blooded slumber as they were.

But underestimating a crocodile can be a deadly mistake. They can move with incredible speed, snap their jaws in a fraction of a second, and drag a hapless keeper to a watery grave without warning. A co-worker of mine almost lost a foot when a three-meter long American crocodile that seemed asleep suddenly turned around and caught his leg with its teeth. He was lucky; he was rescued by the other keepers before the crocodile could drag him to the water.

American crocodiles, like the one who attacked my co-worker, are the most widespread in Mexico. They can grow up to 6 or perhaps even 7 meters long, being among the largest crocodilians in the world. Due to their rather slender body, however, they are usually not as heavy as the largest Nile or saltwater crocodiles. According to most experts, the saltwater crocodile (native of Southern Asia and northern Australia, and formerly also found in eastern Africa), which reaches lengths comparable to those of the American croc, is the largest reptile in the world, weighing up to 1000 kg or more. There’s been many rumors and unconfirmed reports of larger salties, however; some crocodiles shot in Orissa, India (a place famous for its giant salties) were said to be 8 or even 10 meters long, a size that could be best described as “dinosaur-like”. However, when the skulls of these monsters were examined, there was no reason to assume they were longer than 6 to 7 meters.

The largest verified saltwater crocodile alive today is Lolong, an enormous male (said to have eaten people) captured in the Philippines; at 6.17 meters long, he is not only the largest crocodile reliably measured, but also the largest in captivity.

Interestingly, claims of crocodiles as large as Lolong have been made in my own country. One of Mexico’s most respected zoologists, Miguel Alvarez del Toro, claimed to have seen a crocodile in the CaƱon del Sumidero, Chiapas, measuring at least eight meters long. Closer to my home, in Colima, a crocodile park kept the skull of an enormous male which according to the park rangers measured six meters and a half before he wandered out of the park’s limits and was shot to death by some idiot with a gun. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to photograph the skull and so I cannot verify these claims.

The truth is, crocodiles probably grow larger than we think, but we rarely give them the chance to. Like many other animals, including snakes, sharks and tigers, they may be shrinking due to human pressure; there’s less food for them, and people shoot them before they can reach their full physical potential.

Even so, the largest crocodilian species still reach impressive sizes. Nile, Saltwater, American and Orinoco crocodiles all reach 6 meters long or more, as does the fish-eating gharial. The American alligator and the Indian mugger can both grow to over 5 meters long. The black caiman, considered the largest predator in the Amazon basin, probably reaches over 6 meters as well, although due to its scarcity and remote habitat, little is known about it. Except for the gharial, all of these crocodilians have been known to eat people, and two of them- the Nile and Saltwater crocodiles- kill more people annually than any other wild predator.

They will eat anything they can capture. Lion claws have been found in the stomach of Nile crocodiles, and they are known to attack even rhinos and elephants (although attacks on the latter are usually unsuccessful). Gustave, the famous man-eating crocodile of Burundi, is said to have killed and eaten an adult male hippopotamus- a beast most crocodiles wisely avoid.

Saltwater crocodiles have an even wider menu, ranging from water buffaloes to sharks, and in 2011, one of them killed and ate an adult male tiger in the Sundarbans- an impressive feat, as tigers often fare well against crocodiles, even in the water.

The other crocodilian species tend to be much smaller and less ambitious when it comes to their menu. All of them can deliver a nasty and dangerous bite, but most of them avoid people and they rarely attack.  

False Gharial (Fritz Geller-Grimm/Creative Commons)

The endangered false gharial is a special case. Rarely mentioned in books as one of the large crocodilians, it is now known to reach 6 meters long or more, and in 2008, one of them shocked the world when it killed and ate a man in Malaysia. Before this, the false gharial was thought to be mostly a fish-eater.

Related Series: Hodari Nundu on Giant Snakes
Part 1: Giant Snakes



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